Bone by Bone

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						   text publishing	                     melbourne	australia T e a c h e r s ’ R e s o u r c e K i t

       Bone by Bone
       Tony Johnston
       ISBN 978-1-921351-62-4
       RRP AUS $22.95 NZ $27.00
       Fiction paperback
       Recommended for Secondary
       Resource Kit Contains
       • Synopsis
       • Author Information
       • Themes
       • Style
       • Questions for discussion chapter by chapter
       • Further Questions for Discussion

Synopsis                                                    Themes
This novel is set in the 1950’s in Tennessee in the south   The themes include the corrosive racism that goes deep
of the United States which is a racial hotbed. In the       into the community and destroys both black and white.
preface the writer describes it as a slower and more        The integrity of both the hated and the hater is broken
innocent time, but also as a ‘meaner’ time. There           by the racial tension embedded in the communities of
was a very strong feeling of racism towards the Afro-       the south.
Americans who were seen as a lesser people and
                                                            It is also a story of the relationships between father and
sometimes they were hardly considered as people at
                                                            son—in this case a love-hate relationship in which it is
all. Black children did not attend white schools or ride
                                                            impossible for either one to understand the other.
on white buses or sit on public seats unless they were
marked ‘Blacks Only.’ It was also the home of the Ku        It is a story about growing up and about the loss of
Klux Klan, a terrifying cult of white supremacists who      innocence. David and Malcolm hid under the house,
disguised themselves in white robes with slits for eyes     longing to hear dark secrets. But neither of them was
and whose symbol was a burning cross. They murdered         really aware at that time just how dark and impenetrable
blacks, burnt their homes and brought with them a           the secrets were to turn out to be. By the end of the
constant sense of terrorism and horror.                     book David realised he didn’t really hate all of his daddy,
                                                            ‘he just hated part of him.’ But it was a big enough part
This is the story of a lovely and innocent ‘heart-
                                                            for him to feel a need to escape.
friendship’ between David, the son of a ‘nigger-hating’
doctor and Malcolm, a black boy whom David’s father         It is a story about sacrifice—the necessity of giving up
has threatened to shoot if he enters their house. They      treasured ambitions and family for the sake of what one
spend all their play-time together, getting up to all the   believes is right. We learn that David pays a heavy price
fun and mischief that one would expect from eleven          for his integrity just as Malcolm pays a heavy price for his
year-old boys. David lives with his father, a doctor, who   colour.
is frightening in his prejudice and his obsession about
David becoming a doctor, too. He shows by turns a
tenderness and a cruelty and insensitivity to his son.      Style
There is also his grandmother, a fearful but rather         The story is sometimes chilling, sometimes funny, and
ineffective woman, who loves David, but is unable to        always very moving. It is narrated simply, but in beautiful
protect him and his one hundred year-old grandmother,       prose by the narrator, David. The characters are strongly
a very difficult , bed-ridden woman. The only real solace   drawn and you should delight in the way they unfold
for him is the tolerant, understanding and jovial Uncle     through the story. The lyrical, deceptively simple prose
Lucas. Sadly he is not around all the time.                 is filled with rich imagery. The delicate pictures of the
                                                            natural world only serve to sharpen the atrocities we see
                                                            in the book.
Author Information
                                                            There is a lot of humour in the book. The truly
Tony Johnston, a teacher and full-time writer, grew up
                                                            awful, curmudgeonly one hundred year-old great-
in an atmosphere of racial intolerance. Bone by Bone
                                                            grandmother, Gold Ma, creates some hilarious
is based on that experience. Though it could have
                                                            occasions. This humour is important because we could
happened anywhere, it is set in the South of the USA,
where Johnston’s father was born and raised.

                                   the	text	publishing	company
    Bone by bone Tony Johnston                                     Te a c h e r s ’ R e s o u r c e K i t

not otherwise bear the sadness and brutality we find in      There they were, two boys, in summer, hooting like mad.
the story.                                                   It sounds like an idyllic world. But we are soon reminded
                                                             of the dark side of their world when Slur Tucker arrives.
The book is notable for its characterisation. Even the
most minor characters are portrayed as human, which          • How is his evil shown to us in the physical description
can make them more scary. Other characters, like               of him?
Daddy, are very complex. There are no caricatures, no        • We also have our first real picture of David’s
really black and white characters. Even the horrific Slur      grandmother. What does she look like? Why do you
behaves as he does because he is always drunk.                 think she was always afraid? Why was she always
                                                               sweeping? (This is mentioned several times in the
Chapter 1                                                      book.) Why do you think she was as ‘taciturn as a
                                                               churn’ and was always reading?
The writer grabs our attention from the opening line.
                                                             David stands up to his father as much as he can,
• How does the narrator startle us and then make us          honestly saying that Malcolm is his friend. But there is
  laugh?                                                     no one to support him. Malcolm describes his father
This chapter marks the beginning of their friendship.        as a devil. Malcolm sets himself the goal to change
Colour is of no importance to either of them. It is Daddy    the Nigger Rule. And we are aware for the first time of
who points out Malcolm’s colour.                             something mysterious in Daddy’s past, a black woman
• How does David paint a very visual picture of his
  father on p. 3?                                            This chapter is full of descriptions of the senses—the
                                                             cooking in the kitchen and the sounds of the street.
• What is suggested by saying his shirt was ‘stiff as
  rigor mortis’?                                             • In about 150 words describe cooking something in
• Why do you think Daddy asserted that Malcolm could           your kitchen. What can you see? What can you smell?
  not wear a sheet on Halloween?                               What can you feel in your hands?
• We very soon are given more detail about Daddy.            • Close your eyes and listen carefully to the sounds you
  How does David feel about his father?                        can hear outside or inside the room. Then describe
                                                               these sounds as vividly as you can.
We also learn that David’s mother is dead, that he lives
with his fearful grandmother and his bed-ridden Gold
Ma.                                                          Chapter 3

Look carefully at the language that is used in this          • For David’s tenth birthday, his father gives him a
chapter. Malcolm’s crying ‘is nearly pulling down the          bowie knife and a raincoat. What does this tell us
evening sky’. ‘Stars clustered in the walnut tree.’ When       about his father?
Daddy ‘wanted something his voice turned to butter.’
When he talks to his mother, he ‘peels off his charm.’       Chapter 4
The moon ‘was the colour of a persimmon.’ David and
                                                             On p. 28 we enter Gold Ma’s bedroom. We all know how
his father walked through Halloween,’ wrapped in the
                                                             every room and every house has its own smell. And they
haunted silence of the moon.’
                                                             all ‘smell of things that had happened long ago.’
• How do these phrases add not only to the
                                                             • In about 100–150 words describe a room that you
  visualisation of the scene, but also to the
                                                               know. How does it smell? What can you see? What
                                                               can you hear?
•   If Daddy could ‘peel off his charm,’ what does it tell
                                                             There is an unforgettable description of Gold Ma which
    us about him?
                                                             sums her up. ‘Though her body was wizened up like a
• When David talks about ‘walking in the haunted             raisin, her tongue was sharp as a boning knife.’
  silence of the moon,’ what does it tell us about how
  he felt?                                                   • Think of three people you know and try to sum them
                                                               up in one colourful sentence each.

Chapter 2                                                    Although Gold Ma is as bigoted as her son, there is
                                                             a great deal of humour in the chapter, particularly
This chapter is again full of pictures of people.            regarding the Last Ring of Hell. We are also introduced
When we first met Malcolm we only saw that he was little     to Uncle Lucas, ‘loud as a bass drum. And funny.’
and terrified. Here we see him as a fire cracker, full of    • Why is it important to have this light-hearted moment
fun and ideas, a wonderful friend for a boy to have. He        in this stage of the book?
has also a thoughtfulness and a depth that goes beyond
the fun of a pissing contest. After they make their mud
baby, David wonders if that is how God made people.          Chapter 5
But Malcolm sees there is something missing—‘the light       This chapter is very important in showing us how alike
inside.’                                                     the blacks and the whites were .
• What does he mean?                                         • What methods does Johnston use to emphasise their
                                                               sameness.                                                                                               2
  Bone by bone Tony Johnston                                       Te a c h e r s ’ R e s o u r c e K i t

Chapters 6 and 7                                             In the midst of the frustrating hunt they met the Mole
• What was strange about David’s birth presents from         Man, ‘a marvellous mystery’ who earned his living killing
  his father?                                                vermin. David believed he was a crazed killer who rode
                                                             round on his bicycle, calling out, ‘What’s yo’ killin’
• Malcolm and David loved to play under the house.           wants? What’s yo’ killin’ needs?’
  What were they hoping to find out?
• What else do we find out about the insensitivity and       But far from being a loony cutthroat, he had wanted to
  cruelty of Daddy from these chapters?                      be a doctor, just like David. As Uncle Lucas explained to
                                                             him, ‘coloured people best not have dreams.’

Chapter 8                                                    • What did Malcolm mean when he told David that
                                                               a Negro can’t have dreams because ‘it’s the white
‘A bad thing moved among us, known as the Ku Klux              man’s boat we’re afloat in.’
                                                             A great sadness swept over David, ‘like a great grey
It was enough to cause David terrible nightmares.            wave off the sea.’
• We see another side of Daddy in this chapter. How do       • Why does Uncle Lucas tell David to never talk of the
  we see his gentler side?                                     Mole Man again, but to always call him ‘Mr Swann’?
                                                             • What does this tell us about Uncle Lucas?
Chapter 9                                                    • How did David demonstrate his new-found respect
• Describe the Black Bob Cave. Why is it described as          for Mr Mole?
  ‘rank with possibilities’?                                 • There is a moment of hope at the end of this chapter.
• How did Malcolm and David seal their friendship              How does the description of the sun in the last
  there? What do you think would have been Daddy’s             paragraph on p. 78 show this to us?
                                                             Chapters 13 and 14
Chapter 10                                                   • We needed the lightness of the last paragraph
We learn more about Uncle Lucas in this chapter. He            of Chapter14 because here we are obsessed with
breathed joy into the family. When he sang he was              bones, grave-robbers, David’s morbid desire to visit
‘afloat on the beauty of the notes.’ He was ‘ a figure         a morgue and the horrible Mortifying Body Song
cloaked in romance.’ He could swear and still seem             which the boys relished ghoulishly. And Daddy was
godly; he travelled all over the world; he had an innate       mortified when David said Malcolm knew all the
understanding of boys and what they needed. He was             bones.
the only person who seemed to bring out the warmth           • He called David a liar. Why?
in Grandma. ‘They hugged as if taking a long drink           In the next chapter which continues the theme of death
of water.’ He understood David and understood his            we see another side of Daddy in the way he looks after
brother.                                                     his old friend.
• What fuels David’s suspicion (p. 61) that his father       • Why does this make David even more determined
  belongs to the Klan?                                         to be a doctor just like his Daddy, even though his
• How do we know that Uncle Lucas doesn’t believe              father has put him through the trauma of visiting and
  that Daddy will ever change?                                 touching a dying man?
• Why was the ‘trick box’ of such importance to David?       But the tension of this chapter is broken up by the
                                                             hilarious account of Gold Ma’s determination to go to
Chapter 11                                                   the wake.

‘The devil is driving to church.’                            • Write a short account of this in your own words.
                                                             • Write an imaginary scene where a serious occasion is
• What does the car-washing incident tell us abut
                                                               disrupted by something incongruous happening.
• Can you think of any reason why this bullying should
  occur at this point of the story?                          Chapter 15
Again we find some lightness in contrast to the cruelty      ‘Daddy was a fool for baseball.’ And as the summer
of the chapter before. We have Miss Grace who is warm        approached the boys felt that they would love the game
and friendly to both boys and ‘built like a hen.’            forever. For David, baseball seemed a way of getting
                                                             around Daddy’s hatred of Africans. The boys would
• What does this description suggest to you?                 try out for the same team. Of course, Malcolm was not
There is lovely humour, too, in the boys’ ambition           allowed to try out, because, ‘niggers don’t get to do
to see the arm of Grace’s Confederate great-great-           what white boys can.’
grandfather. There is also delight in the hunt for Grace’s
                                                             • How did David react to being on the team without
pig, Gethsemane.
                                                               Malcolm?                                                                                             3
  Bone by bone Tony Johnston                                        Te a c h e r s ’ R e s o u r c e K i t

• Do you think David was naïve in expecting Malcolm           Chapter 19
  to be accepted? Why do you think this?                      There is a blend of humour and horror in this chapter.
• Describe your feelings if something treasured by you
  was desecrated by a parent (p. 99)                          • The shooting of the overdose of toasters is funny in
                                                                itself. Where does the note of nastiness creep in on p.
• In what ways is Malcolm’s father different from               119?
  David’s Daddy? (p. 96)
                                                              It grows worse with Daddy’s drunken driving and
                                                              the terrible realisation that David’s grandmother is
Chapter 16                                                    frightened of his father.
• Why is there a rift between David and Malcolm?              David’s anger reaches boiling point when he is asked by
• What is David’s reaction to this break-up?                  his weeping grandmother to take up a piece of wedding
On the way home from cleaning Miss Grace’s windows,           cake to Gold Ma. When Gold Ma said, ‘Your nigra
he is pleased with the chink of money in his pocket, but      friend’s not getting any o’ that cake,’ he screamed that
we sense his mood in his view of the ‘withered magnolia       she was ‘a nigra and you can’t stand it, so you hate every
blossoms, curled and brown like small cigars.’                one of them.’

Suddenly he comes upon a terrified Malcolm, being             • How did Daddy punish David for this outburst?
attacked by Hell, the rooster, and taunted by the             Notice the plain and unadorned way this horrible scene
drunken Slur, who had obviously set the rooster on him.       between father and son is written.
With incredible bravery David rushed into the fray and
managed to rescue Malcolm, amid taunts that the Klan          • How does this style of writing make it even grimmer?
would get him.
                                                              Chapter 20
In the ensuing silence, Daddy appeared. He was without
shame. It was then that David realised he never wanted        ‘After the destruction of my treasures, I wrapped myself
to be like his father. ‘We were like two people tugging in    in anger like a thick winter coat.’
different directions on the same rope.’                       Malcolm kept a low profile. David refused to see Gold
When his father strolled in, saying it was just a joke,       Ma unless absolutely necessary. His book-loving
‘Silence stole in and chilled the room.’ David ‘could feel    grandmother told him about codes. And through codes,
the dark.’                                                    Malcolm and David kept in touch.

• Why are silence, cold and darkness so appropriate to        At Christmas, David learns that Tinney had been
  this scene?                                                 Daddy’s nurse, his mammy.
                                                              • Why did Daddy love Tinney and hate all other blacks
Chapter 17                                                      so much? Do you find this a difficult part of the book
The next few chapters turn from death and hate to               to understand?
images of love. Firstly there is the image of Fats taking
on flesh and becoming his friend. There is a radiance         Chapter 21
in the air. Fats sings sweetly of love. ‘His voice rang all   • Tell the story of how David and Malcolm were
around us, beautiful as a hymn. It shimmered in the             bequeathed the arm.
leaves of the trees. And along the pavement. Till my
bones sang with it.’                                          There is a colourful description of Christmas dinner on
                                                              p. 136.
But Fats had died. He had been lynched.
                                                              • Describe a Christmas meal or other celebratory meal
• Why is Fats described with such beauty in this dream?         you have known. Make sure that your readers can
                                                                smell it and see it and taste it.
Chapter 18                                                    • Do you think Daddy’s grace before the meal was
Love takes on a real form in this chapter with the arrival      hypocritical? Why?
of Tinney, with ‘skin the colour of licorice’ and smelling    Again David shows his bravery and defiance in giving Mr
‘of talcum and righteousness, a fearful combination.’         Swann Christmas dinner. He has his uncle’s support.

• How does this make you feel about her?                      • But, out on the porch, Christmas ended for David.
• Why was David shocked when Daddy tried                        Why was this?
  unsuccessfully to embrace her?
Her toothless gums smelt of Juicy Fruit, her dress was        Chapter 22
like a whole field of flowers. She told him she had been      • David turns 13. He has sat for the exams for Barlow.
watching him since the day he was born. But who was             Why has he decided he doesn’t want to go?
she? How could she just waltz in to the house? Whatever       • When they go to the graveyard, sadness seeps into
the answer he felt she was a blessing on him and on             David’s bones. Make a list of all the images in the
Malcolm. He believed she would watch over Malcolm               graveyard that make it such a sad place (pp. 143-5).
and see he came to no harm. A little later he saw
Malcolm and Mr Deeter.                                                                                               4
  Bone by bone Tony Johnston                                     Te a c h e r s ’ R e s o u r c e K i t

• The finding of Geth, the sow, was an anticlimax, but     Chapter 28
  it was soon overtaken by the greatest atrocity. What     The crisis of the story comes in the last chapter.
  was this?
• Why do you suspect that it was the doing of the Ku       • Describe in your own words what Malcolm must have
  Klux Klan?                                                 felt when he asked for entry to David’s house when
                                                             the Klan were after him?
• Describe in your own words what happened.
                                                           • Again, how do you think David felt?
                                                           • How does Daddy react to this?
Chapter 23
                                                           • Why does David say before he leaves that he only
Grandmother was ‘bleak with horror,’ but she could not       hates part of Daddy? What part of him did he love?
comfort David. When David talked to the sheriff he felt
the grown-ups no longer cared.                             • What do you feel will become of David?
                                                           • Imagine that 10 years have gone by. Write a story
• Give two reasons for this.                                 saying what you think has happened to him. Where
• Why did David search through his father’s things?          is he? What is he doing? Try to fill your story with the
• Why did he hear the sound of constant sweeping             colours, sounds, smells and feelings which make this
  which made him afraid to go to sleep?                      story so beautiful.

Chapter 24                                                 Further issues for discussion
David dreams of people clothed in white angel wings.       • Have you ever been the victim of racist insults? How
These changed horribly into robes and pointed hoods.         did it make you feel?

• Can you, in just 200 words describe the atmosphere       • What evidence of racism have you seen in your school
  of a dream you have had?                                   or your neighbourhood? How did you deal with it?
                                                           • How would you feel if your family refused to let you
                                                             have anything to do with your best friend?
Chapter 25
David is determined that he will not go to Barlow and
will never become a doctor like his father.                Glenys Collis
• What steps does he take in this chapter to get out
  of it?
David receives a very cold welcome when he goes to
Howard to find Tinney as he is seen as the son of the
‘nigger hater.’ He is rescued by a large man named
Gideon and taken to Tinney. He poured out his heart
about Mr Swann. Tinney replied that ‘Ugly’s out there,
baby dear. Like a wile animal. You dwell on it too much,
you can’t move.’
When he mentioned his fear that his Daddy was a
Klansman, she replied, ‘Mebbe yes, mebbe no.’
• What reasons did she give David for the way the Klan
• And what did she mean when she said that ‘the one
  who hates has already lost the most important thing
  of all.’

Chapters 26 and 27
His battle with his father over Barlow begins.
On his thirteenth birthday Daddy takes him into the
town. But Daniel has decided he is going to be like his
• Do you feel that all this celebration is for Daddy’s
  benefit—that he wants to show off his clever son?
When he arrives home, there is a tomb-stone rubbing
from Malcolm. For David, ‘stars came out to tack up the
sky.’                                                                                               5

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